I bet that some of you have been in that awkward situation where you wonder what kind of music is Twenty One Pilots. So you start trying to explain: “I mean it’s not rap, but he raps. It’s not rock, but they do have electric guitar riffs here and then. It’s not EDM , but they do have some pretty darn nice drops.” Well as Tyler Joseph (Lead Vocalist of Twenty One Pilots) puts it in his song “Heavydirtysoul”: “This is not rap, this is not hip-hop / Just another attempt to make the voices stop.” Well he is certainly right. Along with many artist such as Kanye West, Outkast, K’naan, Chance The Rapper, Black Eyed Peas, Kid Cudi, Kendrick Lamar, Lupe Fiasco, N.E.R.D, Gorrilaz, among many others, belong in the canon of the musical genre called Alternative Hip Hop.
So, What is Alternative Hip Hop? The first thing to know about the artists of Alternative Hip Hop is that they reject the usual gangsta vibe from traditional rap. In its place, they use splinters of the different unique qualities of jazz, funk, reggae, soul, alternative rock, EDM, folk, and punk. Also, instead on having straight-forward lyrics, they rely on more intricate lyrics. To get a better sense of the correlations, take a look of the map used in this blog.
Alongside with West Coast’s Gangsta Rap, alternative Hip Hop rose on what is known as the Golden Age of Rap in the 1980’s, but its appearance was overshadowed by Gangsta Rap. It is not until the late 1990’s that Alternative Hip Hop got its popularity with the boundary crossing artists of musical styles, Kanye West and Outkast.
The mixture of overlaying genres that slips these artists from the rap stream can be perceived in Kanye West song “Black Skinhead”. As Rolling Stone Magazine says in their “100 Best Songs of 2013”, “’Ye [Kanye West] rapping rabid over an industrial glitter-rock stomp pumped with heavy breathing and Tarzan screams. Next time someone says America is post-race, play ’em this, and watch their head explode.” If you listen closely to the song you can appreciate the industrial sounds and the “heavy breathing and Tarzan screams”, that give it that tribal feel. In addition the song name is stylized as BLKKK SKKKN HEAD, to refer to the terrorist group known as the KKK. This song has very complex lyrics (as part of the conventions of Alternative Rap) that refers to how media forms and shapes reality, as seen in the song with the depiction of the movie 300, which is far based from the reality of the Trojan wars. He also refers to himself as an ape, which is the way that media depicts him with his relationship with Kim Kardashian, as he put it “They see a black man with a white woman at the top floor they gone come to kill King Kong / Middle America packed in, came to see me in my black skin/ Number one question they asking.” Kanye West addresses the hypocritical nature behind the media.